Mendha Lekha – Gadchiroli


As we commemorated the centennial of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj in November 2009, three communities stood testimoy to the power of local self-rule, Gandhi’s governing principle for this country in his famous text

Sadaf Modak

“I believe that you want the millions of India to be happy, and for that we have to consider only one thing: how can the millions obtain self-rule?”
~ Mahatma Gandhi

In his book Hind Swaraj, Mahatma Gandhi sought self-rule over any other form of governance for India. Many criticised the idea of entrusting power to a majority that was illiterate and a population which was divided and ultimately India adopted the parliamentary form.

Today, a hundred years later, some communities are proving just how practical the idea of self-rule can be. Designing their own patterns of self-sustenance outside what the political structure provides for, these communities have brought about a swaraj of their own: one not limited to the literate or the affluent but adopted by communities like the tribes of Central India or the slum inhabitants across the border in Pakistan.

The foremost example of self-governance comes from a village in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, Mendha (Lekha). With a forest area of 1800 hectares, it has a population not more than 450 people of the Gond tribe. Yet, they made it amply clear that representative democracy handed over to them by a political structure far removed from their own tribal customs would not work for them. “Before Independence, the nation was under the British rule, the tribes were not. Yet, the rules thereafter meant getting permission for every action undertaken in our own forest land which was termed as public property. We were of the opinion that the government should handle the papers of the forest land, while we look after the forest ourselves,” says Devaji Toffa, one of the prime members of the village who brought about a revival of tribal rights to forests.

Under law, the Forest Department was given the authority over forests with no local community involvement. The non-cooperation of the villagers with the Department on issues like harvesting timber and felling trees led to major tussles between the two. In 1989, the Mendha community formed a forest association called the Van Sanrakshan Samiti which held formal meetings to discuss their problems. It represented the whole village, two members – a male and a female – from each household. In 1996, the association was recognised under the Joint Forest Management. “At the centre, there is Delhi government, at the state level, there is Mumbai government, but we are our own government. Here, every decision is taken with everybody’s consent. Even if one member disagrees, the decision is put on hold. There has been no police or court cases against anybody here. We believe in swayam shasan (self-rule),” adds Toffa, who takes pride in the manner in which the village fought for its rights, unlike the violent means of the Naxals.

This model of forest rights was also undertaken by Saigata, a village in the Chandrapur district in Maharashtra with 88 households and 432 members mainly belonging to the Mahar caste and Gond tribe. The unsustainable use of forest commodities over the years by villagers and the Bramhapuri township close by almost led to the destruction of the forest in the 70’s. Before irreparable damage could be done to their own forest, the residents of Saigata got together and set up a Krishak Charcha Mandal.

The group initially worked towards better farming techniques and soon decided to restore 300 hectares of degraded forest around the village. The main aim of the group was to create awareness among fellow villagers against unsustainable forest harvesting and the ill-effects of forest degradation. Villagers collecting fuel wood, charcoal makers and households using forests for indiscriminate self-consumption were convinced about the gravity of the situation. The villagers, once successful in doing so through formal discussions and folk art and communication, also had to keep an eye out for outsiders exploiting the forests. Moreover, they worked towards improving the quality of their forests. They took charge of their forests rather than depending on outsiders to do so.

In 1993, the village joined the Joint Forest Management Program but continues to have its own institutional structure which is influential in the decisions taken by the forest association. Not only is the funding for community programs done by the village itself, each household gives a certain amount depending on the size of the land they hold. A penalty structure too is in place which increases the fine with each repetition. The last resort is to complain to the Forest Department, but the community never had to approach them for this.

Unlike the Mendha village, this group of villagers was not homogenous and lacked a common understanding. Yet both have adapted to modern laws and values without giving up their structures. Such a pattern of self-governance envisioned by Gandhi has been successful in its own way across the border in Pakistan as well.

The project by the Orangi Township in Karachi is an example of the power of local people in building their own infrastructure for themselves. The Orangi Township is Asia’s largest informal settlement extending over 10,000 acres and is home to an approximate 1.2 million people belonging to lower and lower-middle income groups. Like most slum localities, this one too was not regularised as per earlier laws and therefore had been given no provisions by the government in Pakistan.

The Orangi Pilot Project was then undertaken by social scientist Akhtar Hameed Khan in 1980. He organised meetings of families living in lanes that comprised 20-25 houses to develop a sewage and drainage system of their own. They reached an agreement where they appointed their own leader who was then trained for technical help. Plans were then made. The labour was provided for by the residents themselves who initially sought financial help from the government but soon developed their own funding system of not more than USD 30 per house.

The demonstration project undertaken by a few families was a success. To date, nearly 6000 lanes have developed their own sewer systems linked to sanitary power-flush latrines serving over 90,000 housing units, using their own funds (the equivalent of around USD 1.4 million) and under their own management.

Local labour used local materials and built extremely low cost underground sewers. The project was self-funded, self-maintained and self-administered. The main reason why low-income households could afford this is that the work cost one-sixth of what it would have cost if it had been undertaken by the state.

Once the project was successful, it expanded into other initiatives like basic health, improvement of local schools, and increase in participation of women in all forms of developmental work. This successful project has led to the government replicating it in eight cities and 49 other settlements and even in policies like the Rural Support Programme (RSP) where the community members work with representatives of government departments in decision-making.

Like the other two, this one too proves Gandhi’s idea prophesied a century ago right, even if unknowingly.

Mendha-Lekha, a small village in Dhanora taluka in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, lives up to the idea that community self-governance is self-empowerment

Deepshikha Chauhan

Where community is given the responsibility of managing the resources and biodiversity, it evolves.

Mendha, which is 500 metres away from Lekha village and is situated in the Dhanora tehsil of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra state, has reversed the nature of power talks in the corridors of representative society. For they have framed a holistic framework for conserving natural resources and biodiversity on the basis of consensual decision making, equity and empowerment for all.

Gram swaraj (or village democracy) based on gram sabha (village assembly) has evolved in Mendha- Lekha of its own accord. Troubled by forest officials, tribal people were prevented from using forest reserves for their livelihood. To fight for their rights, they protested against the constraint on the use of what they call nistar (livelihood) forests, eventually becoming the first village to be a part of Joint Forest Management scheme. By organising a village forest protection committee, they have been successful in protecting their 1600 hectares of forest land by making and implementing their own laws.

Devaji Navalu Tofa, a former sarpanch who has been coordinating and evolving the process of consensual decision making, said, “We have witnessed a transition from a fear-based community to an empowered community. Earlier tribals could kill tigers but feared government officials. They can now assert and demand explanations from state and forest officials who plan activities in our forests.”

There are seven villages by the same name in the district. What makes Mendha extraordinary is its ability to live successfully as a model of self governance. Amongst many initiatives promoting its empowerment is the formation of study circles with voluntary members from the community and outsiders who strengthen the knowledge process, thereby enabling the decision making process necessary for sustainability and self reliance. “The study circle has initiated a cyclical process of knowledge-decision-action-knowledge,” said Mohan Hirabai Hiralal who has been associated with the study circle since the time he came to the village along with his wife to study its anthro-ecological perspective in 1990-94. He said, “We work with people, not for people and this symbiotic relationship has worked well over the years.”

Other initiatives include Gram Niyojan Vikas Parishad, an NGO with members from the community and acts as a trust for the development of the village. Each member has to deposit Rs 6 every year for their membership. It has a karyakarni mandal (executive body) which includes draftsmen, accountants, passbook keepers and spenders. “As gram sabha is the final decision making body, the established system ensures financial transparency,” said present NGO convenor Devaji Tofa.

Villagers have achieved security through village grain banks. Liquor prohibition has ensured security to women and an equal participation in decision making has empowered them. Mendha-Lekha has 80 families with both a woman and a man representative in the gram sabha from each household. Village courts solve disputes and collect fines. It is involved in collecting 10 per cent of the wages earned from employment other than agriculture, and this helps in walking through village finance. They have their own bank account in the name of the Mendha-Lekha gram sabha, which permits loans on a return date and makes them self sufficient.
Through forest conservation, they have been able to protect trees and learn eco-friendly methods of honey collection with help from forest officials. They have accepted that the use of bio-diverse resources for their livelihood, and not their commercial use, is the priority. Mendha Lekha gram sabha, thus, as a continuous process of self-improvement, has, over the years, assured a fair and equitable sharing of benefits among its 380 members.

As a model of great human potential and defining the utopian belief associated with consensual decision- making, Mendha Lekha has not only empowered resource-dependent women and marginalised groups, but has helped them gain and experience a greater voice in a decentralised institution practicing participatory rather than representative democracy.
Though such human potential models cannot be replicated, they envision a future for self-governance and exercise the need for formulating efforts to counter the evil forces of globalisation which is gradually abandoning the interests of the people.
As a vanguard to the future models of self-governance, Mendha-Lekha actuates what Gandhi, the father of this nation, aspired for with Purna Swaraj.

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